December 17, 2009

Publicizing a suicide attempt at an area high school?

The Mayor of Claycord yesterday reported on a student's suicide attempt at Clayton Valley School and included a recording of the voice message that Principal Gary Swanson left at the homes of students.

Some might question whether the Mayor should have reported this... I'll get to that question in a minute.

Regarding the incident: According to Principal Swanson and comments left by eyewitnesses on's message board, the student cut her wrists, and this occurred during lunch time.

Swanson said the student "hurt herself," and "friends were close by and were able to render immediate first aid and get additional help." Swanson added that the girl is doing OK, but advised parents to be prepared to talk to their kids about the incident and that crisis counselors would be available at the school today to meet with students. Some of those comments on came from parents who either knew the girl herself or had kids who witnessed the incident, and at least one parent said her own child was traumatized by it.

First of all, I think those girl's friends deserve some kind of public commendation. They acted quickly and with the presence of mind, in a very upsetting, frightening situation, to provide first aid and to get immediate help. Meanwhile, as a parent, I think Principal Swanson set a good example for communicating with his school community about a traumatic incident. He immediately alerted the school community about this incident. No doubt, it was something all the kids, teachers, and parents would be talking about yesterday, and will probably be talking about today.

As for whether the Mayor should have publicized this incident? Will that bring further shame and stigma to this student and her family? Some people I told about this post thought so.
At the same time, I'm pretty sure that most kids at Clayton Valley know who she is, as do their parents. For one thing, the comments on his message board overwhelmingly express support for her and her family.

The Mayor's blog, and now mine, does introduce the topic to people outside of Clayton Valley High community, but is that a bad thing? I think the Mayor provided an important public service about a situation that often gets buried. I didn't see any mention of it in the print or online edition of the Contra Costa Times. Maybe their reporters didn't get the word, though it was on Claycord yesterday afternoon. Maybe it's tucked far in some back page, or somewhere deep one the website.

But if mention of this incident is not in the Times, it could be due to that rule we always had in mainstream media world--that you don't report on suicides, unless it occurs in a very public manner--say, by walking into traffic on the freeway, or shooting yourself in the plaza in front of Nordstrom in Walnut Creek's Broadway Plaza.

The thinking behind not publicizing suicide is that this manner of death should be private because it is shameful. This thinking reflects larger cultural and religious attitudes about suicide, as well as the depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses that lead people to attempt it.

Another concern about publicizing suicides, especially when you're dealing with young people, is that doing so will somehow glamorize it and lead to copycat attempts.

Maybe. But is hiding it, not talking about it, treating it as something shameful a preferable way to go? Ultimately, I don't think so.

The fact is, mental illness and suicide are serious public health issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 600,000 people in one year (2006) went to the emergency rooms of hospitals for self-inflicted injuries, and 33,000 people died by suicide. In 2007, suicide was the 11th leading cause of death for all ages, and the third leading cause of death of 15- to 24-year-olds.

Also in 2007:
• Suicide accounted for 12 percent of all deaths among among 15- to 24-year olds.
• 14.5 percent of students in grades 9-12 seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months (18.7 percent of females and 10.3 percent of males).
• Nearly 7 percent of students reported making at least one suicide attempt in the previous 12 months
• 2 percent students had made a suicide attempt that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or an overdose that required medical attention

As for mental illness, the National Institute of Mental Health says that around 26 percent of Americans 18 or older suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in a given year, and about 6 percent suffer from what could be called a serious disorder. As for youth, only about half of kids and teens who have certain mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, receive treatment. And, 13 percent of youth participating in a national study met the criteria for having these disorders.

In the end, the Mayor focused attention, not just on this one student's emergency, but on general community concerns about youth mental health and suicide, judging by the comments on his blog. People got to vent, and even share their own stories about people they knew who took their own lives, and how it affected them.

Meanwhile, one of the Mayor's readers provided useful information, especially for people this time of year, when stress and anxiety can be particularly high. It is the contact information for the Contra Costa Crisis Center. Here are tips on identifying someone who is suicidal and how to get help. And, here is the number for the suicide prevention hotline: (800) 273-TALK (8255) and crisis hotline (800) 833-2900.


Anna, The Lemon Lady said...

I personally know many people who are living and hurting for the loss of someone they loved.

A friend's father - chose to end his life.

Another friend's sister - chose to end her life.

My own Uncle - chose to end his life.

Some of these deaths were recent, while others were long ago. Either way, mental illness, despair, depression should definitely be spoken about. If people need help, there are bloggers (I'm sure the Mayor of Claycord and even Soccer Mom) would probably listen to your emails for cries of help. People have friends in the most unsuspecting circles. Hopefully, those who are despondent will seek help. It is not taboo to be depressed.

Ending one's life is never necessary. We have all lived through tough times, very, very tough times.

Knock on anyone's door, and sadness is around. But there is also joy - life's joy to be experienced. Live.

Robyn in Concord said...

I can't even post on because of the ignorant people saying cruel things about her attempt. I just lost my sister to suicide 2 months ago and for these people to say things like she just did it for attention make me so mad!! Of course she needs help and attention!! She obviously was in so much pain and dispair she could think of no other way out and that of course needs to be addressed as she doesn't know how else to cope with her feelings!! I have so many things running through my head and can't put them all down!! These things need to be brought to parents attention. And people need to stop judging this young girl who so obviously needs help and love and prayers from her family and community.

Masterlock said...

I don't see the harm as long as the name isn't reported for underage kids, especially when a hotline and other support resources are given. This is a very stressful time of year during a very difficult economic stretch, the more the message gets out there that people don't have to suffer alone, the better.

Anonymous said...

Since when have random people posting on someone's blog become credible sources of information? This may have indeed been a suicide attempt, but anonymous postings on blogs amount to electronic gossip.

Crazy, if you want to assign shame to this, be my guest. But in reality, people die every day and the MSM don't report about them (obituaries are paid items now). They don't even cover all the police activity-even though that seems to be all the Mayor is interested in covering.

Frankly, a suicide attempt isn't news to the community as a whole. Although it is appropriate for the principal to address it, and for the community to discuss suicide prevention and counseling.

Anonymous said...

I think it is smart not to over-publicize teen age sucide attempts, particularly in any forum easily accessible to teenagers. Unfortunately, as we have seen in other schools, the publicity can cause more suicide attempts...not sure why, maybe the drama and the heightened attention.

To any teenager reading this, suicide is permanent solution to a temporary problem. Please reflect and choose life. Think of the agony to your family if you don't...pain that lives with them forever.

Anonymous said...

I see nothing wrong with publicizing it. Hiding the truth, ignoring problems, and pretending things are not that bad, is far worse.

Anonymous said...

I think revisting issues that are sensitive like this are a good thing. And usually we dont think we need to revisit them until they occur. Kids these days have a lot more stress on thier shoulders then I would say kids did 10 yrs ago. Not only do these kids have the whole electronic attachment to thier social lives that can be harmful emotionally, but they also have to watch and live w/ thier parents stress too. Many parents have lost thier jobs and I am sure thier stress leaks onto thier children. DO NOT BE SHY IN ADVERTISING THERE IS HELP AVAILABLE! (THE HELP IS AVAILABLE FOR PARENTS TOO!!)

Anonymous said...

We need to inform all people about suicides. It is for the benefit of everyone. Often suicide attempts are a cry for help. What many people don't realize is that parents are often the ones that need to be informed. Parents often go about their daily lives and are not involved in their childrens' lives. Many parents don't talk to their children about anything at all.

"Is everything going alright at school? Where does it hurt?"

Often children are ignored. Kids can be going through all sorts of emotional turmoil and despair. Parents go about their lives and don't even bother to see if their kids want to talk or need help. Hiding suicide attempts makes parents even more closed off. They have a false sense of security believing that their children are living happy lives, when their own kids could be on the verge of killing themselves.

People say that there might be copycats. That might be true, but those copycats were on the verge of committing suicide anyway. The parents of those people are the ones that need to wake up and see if their children are ok. Just because people don't talk about suicide does not mean that there is no hidden turmoil.

Communication is the key. We need to ask other people how they are doing. We need to show that if they are having problems, that we are willing to listen. It is when we hide things and keep quiet that awful things happen.

Anonymous said...

The link above has excellent information on dealing with teen suicide; geared toward teachers, but helpful for everyone -- including communities. A definitive body of research says media attention can trigger copy cat suicides. Responsible reporting respects privacy, and talks about general things that can truly help others. The media rarely rarely respects privacy, and this is a major problem in my opinion. When should private personal pain be exposed to the world, so some reporter can "get the story?" There are other ways to meaningfully discuss issues via the media. said...

Oh my god, there's so much worthwhile information here!